Wednesday, January 07, 2009

War and hope, images and power

My friend Amy from IU sent me a message this morning on Facebook (Are you and I friends yet? We totally should be.), referring me to No Caption Needed, a blog co-authored by one of her colleagues. Specifically, Amy pointed out today's post, What If God Counts?, which features this heartbreaking image from Gaza:

photo from, credit to Mohammed Abed/AFP-Getty Images

Amy asked for my thoughts and, because I am a total narcissist who thinks both (a) that I am brilliant and (b) that you hang on my every word I wonder what you think of me, I will post them here and invite your input.

Here's what I wrote:

Today's post has caused me to think about the images of war that we've been exposed to, and I think about how, historically, emerging media changed what "War" was, to us at home, in World War II, and then in Vietnam. To me, it seems that, as images of what was REALLY happening "over there" became more accessible, our national consciousness grew, around both the reality of what "our boys" were dealing with and the (in)human component of armed conflict. It was no longer a game of Risk viewed from 30,000 feet; rather, it became (if one was able to step past the ultrapatriotism and jingoism) more about individuals -- real life, and real lives in the balance.

...which makes me think about the images of War that I've seen since, say, 2001. That image of a child's arm sticking out from rubble while the adults stand by, helpless, is unlike any characterization of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict I've seen. Or any war zone, for that matter. I haven't seen one comparable image (picture or video) of the thousands (tens of thousands?) of Iraqi civilians who have died as a result of the war since 2003. Indeed, maybe I haven't been seeking them out aggressively enough, but I've not seen any image like that from Iraq or Afghanistan or Darfur or Congo or any other Conflict Place. I almost wonder if we're (I'm?) back to a pre-1940s idea of what War is and how it affects the people -- the very real, human people, with families and jobs and dreams and sadnesses -- who may or may not even be involved. Have we returned to this notion of War as being something halfway around the world, from which we are far removed, and I'll take my extra-hot nonfat half-caff mochachino now, please? (Or, "...and I've lost my job because the US economy is tanking, and how the hell am I going to make my mortgage payment, let alone send my kid to college, please?")

Maybe today's emerging media and the power of the internet will make a difference. Certainly the image in today's post -- and the picture of the foot of a suicide bomber in the following post, as well -- is not an image one is likely to see in the mainstream media. And I'm not sure whether that speaks to our collective Americanism, or the delicate TV-viewing habits of Joe and Jane Sixpack, or the lazy news-consumption habits of Scott Semester, or the deft and merciless media policies of the Bush Administration...?

The part about God -- a relentlessly counting, bottom-line God -- is, indeed, a challenging one. I think we're able to achieve more, but also excuse away more, when we're acting in (what we think is our) God's name. Hariman's thesis makes me uncomfortable (not necessarily in a bad way!), because if I apply it to myself, it seems to hold me doubly accountable: accountable for my lack of sensitivity to the impact of my own day-to-day behaviors and attitudes, but also accountable as an actor in the Israeli-Palestinian drama -- and others.

At the same time, however, I find great power in the notion -- especially the last sentence: "Again, war is a collective failure, and ultimately the judgment rests on us all." For if we're all responsible and the judgment for the act of war rests on us all, might not the solution to ending war reside with us, as well? If I'm responsible and the judgment for the act of war rests on me, might not the solution to ending war reside with me, too?

Certainly a lot to chew on, and a lot to pray about, in that one post!


Robert said...

Scott: Thanks for putting my post up on your blog. You're wrong, however, about the supposed difference in coverage of the Iraq war. Search and you'll find a number of heartbreaking images, and we have seen many more than those we post. The images are out there, although they are not always readily available due to changes in the news cycle. One problem is that many of them are only in slide show; another is that people often don't notice them until they are singled out for special attention.

Scott S. Semester said...

Thanks for your note, Robert.

I spent a little more time on your site this evening and specifically visited the "Visualizing War" category. Indeed, many of the images captured are heartbreaking.

How, if at all, do you think these images will ever be seen on a widespread basis? I concede that I am far less exposed to mainstream media than the average American, but I also can't imagine that these "Visualizing War" images have made it into the consciousness of the average American.

Outside of your blog and others like it (if there are others like it), how can these images be shared more effectively? And then, perhaps more importantly, what can we do with them?

As I said in my post, I'm led to believe that if "ultimately the judgment [for the collective failure of War] rests on us all," then the corollary might be that there's something we can do proactively to fix that collective failure. If I'm to be held to account for the problem, then I also believe that I, myself, must have some opportunity to play a role in the solution.

What is that role, do you think?

Sonja said...

Wow, that was a moving image to see today. Thanks Scott. Here at Overseas Council, may of the seminaries and bible colleges we support are at the heart of this conflict, so I read frequently about the tragedy and chaor of war in the Holy Land.

What we never seem to read about though, are the many, many people who are doing everything they can to foster understanding and tolerance between the people of this land, especially the youth, hoping that by the time they are of the age to be in power, they will end this senseless fighting. We will be featuring an e-news story next month about one such program offered by Bethlehem Bible College to Israeli and Palestinian youth. I'd love to send it to you. I pray one day we won't have fresh images of war from the Holy Land anymore!